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Opeth: Damnation

What do you get when you mix Swedish progressive rock with the existential cinema of fellow countryman Ingmar Bergman? Why Opeth of course! Actually, Damnation bears almost no relation to the Opeth of old. The band have released a handful of death metal albums over the years, incorporating growling vocals over relentlessly intense and intricate guitars pummeling the listener into metallic bliss or forcing one to reach for the stop button, depending on one's tolerance. Previously, I found myself in the latter camp. Prior to Damnation, my only exposure to the band had been Blackwater Park, a collection of very long, VERY heavy and complex metal that I could only swallow in small doses. I recognized that there was talent and genuine passion in the band's sound, but try as I might, I simply couldn't buy into the cartoonish growling vocals, in which the singer couldn't decide if he was a depressed Marine drill sergeant or The Cookie Monster. For whatever reason, Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree decided to align himself with the band and even his excellent production values couldn't make the band more accessible for me.

With that preamble out of the way, I am proud to announce that the latest Opeth release is a symphonic rock powerhouse of depression and rage that has made me reconsider the values of this band. The band members are exactly the same and the CD cover is as bleak as any in their back catalog. But the vocals of Mikael Akerfeldt are clean, mellow and just this side of suicidal despair. Likewise, the music is performed with restraint, practically verging on folk rock. Add to that, Wilson's most committed level of involvement with the band yet, not only as producer, but as an unofficial fifth member of the band. He lends some vocals, acoustic guitar and most especially mellotron to nearly every track. Yes, this Opeth is a very different animal from Blackwater Park! The closest I can compare this album would be to Landberk's One Man Tells Another. It really is that mellow!! Perhaps if Anglagard had been given Quaaludes, this might also have been the result. The first six tracks are especially strong, with "In My Time of Need", "Closure" and "To Rid the Disease" all standing out. The lyrics are about as despairing as one can get. Consider the chorus from "In My Time of Need": "Close to ending it all, I am drifting through the stages of the rapture born within this loss/Thoughts of death inside, tear me apart from the core of my soul". Certainly not the sort of thing one would see on a Flower Kings disc!

Unfortunately, Damnation begins to wear out its welcome a bit by the last couple of tracks. "Ending Credits" is an instrumental that fits the overall mood of the CD, but in context of the relative high quality of the rest of the songs, acts little more than as filler. The last track, "Weakness", drowns in the mire of its own ambient depression. It would work on Radiohead's Kid A, but on Damnation, it's not a terribly convincing closing number.

Despite some reservations, Damnation is a very, very good CD. The level of depression isn't something I want to relate to for a significant length of time. Like Landberk and White Willow, this is very much mood music. I don't know how veteran Opeth fans will feel about this album as it's such a total change in direction for them. Time will tell whether or not this is just a one off experiment. Either way, I applaud the band's bravery at testing their audience. I predict that if they venture into more progressive rock territory, they will come up with a modern classic. Break out the Prozac!

Added: July 30th 2005
Reviewer: Steve Pettengill
Related Link: Official Opeth Website
Hits: 8406
Language: english

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Opeth: Damnation
Posted by Murat Batmaz, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-07-30 16:18:42
My Score:

Damnation is Opeth's "mellow album" that was spoken of a lot during the release of their previous disc Deliverance. When plans to release both discs at the same time failed, Damnation was released separately which was a wise move in my opinion. Reason being, if it had come out as a double album it would have gotten compared to the heavier album way too much and also it would have been a bit difficult to listen to the album at one go. As a separate release, Damnation stands on its own and has its own traits. And, that's definitely what it deserves.

This is a different Opeth album. It is also most likely going to stay that way as Mike Akerfeldt has pointed out several times that, in the future, they are going to explore different directions incorporating both their heavy death metal roots and the softer moments. The album is mostly acoustic and demonstrates Opeth's softer sides without ever relying on their heavier and more aggressive style. Hence, the originality and uniqueness of Damnation. For so long I always wondered what it would sound like if Opeth did an all acoustic record with Mike's almost angelic clean vocals, I always believed it would draw a lot of fans' attention, including those who do not listen to metal but only the late-60's and early-70's psychedelic and progressive rock releases. On Damnation, Opeth delivers its earlier 70's roots utilizing mellotrons and post-psychedelic atmospherics of bands like Camel, Yes and King Crimson. Some of the songs like "In My Time of Need" even employ similar production techniques thanks to Steven Wilson that is reminiscent of the old 70's LPs.

Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree is once again at the helm of production and needless to say he's done a flawless job. It feels like he and the Opeth guys understand each other perfectly. Although the tunes are still penned by Mikael himself, the final touches of Steven Wilson are undeniable. Apparently the mellotron work and some of the atmospheric keyboard textures are his creations. As Opeth has a specific sound that is immediately recognisable, this advantage is taken to a higher level of sophistication with Wilson's awesome production job.

Damnation sees Opeth experimenting a bit further with vocal harmonies and arrangements. They have found a unique sound for every single tune yet managed to maintain the almost perfect unity all throughout the entire disc. The lyrics are mostly inspired from loneliness, despair, regret and depression caused by the end of a relationship. Needless to say they come across as deeply moving and heartfelt. The songs earn their dark tone not just through regular keyboards and synths, but moreso through Floydan guitar work that is layered as a warm texture on the compositions. In "Closure" some people may get the misconception that this is just one of those typical goth tracks with heavy keyboard work thrown in... well it's not. There's not a single keyboard work in there! It's the looped guitars that are playing notes next to each other without getting the least bit forced. The album consists of a culmination of incredible moments of beauty and brutality. Mike has a great voice for melodic singing. He sounds deeply emotive and affecting, and the overall vibe of the songwriting seems very natural and spontaneous. It's like they've all opened their doors and let whatever's inside flow out. I am fully convinced that this is one of those albums that only the Opeth guys could have pulled off. It's indiscribably beautiful yet still very dark, intense and moving.

This may not be the best starting point to get into Opeth, but it has already taken its place in their never-disappointing catalog. Here's a band that has yet to do something that I do not appreciate and Damnation actually ranks very high in my favourite Opeth discs.

2004 Sea Of Tranquility
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